Becoming HIV: disease as agency

Ellie Reynolds, University College London
The following is an exploration of the materiality and meaning of HIV positive semen for a group of gay men who engage in two behaviours: bugchasing and giftgiving. Bugchasing is the desire for, and active pursuit of, HIV infection; giftgiving is the attempt to infect others with HIV. Central to these behaviours is the ‘conversion’ ritual where HIV positive giftgivers attempt to infect HIV negative bugchasers. The bugchasers, during the ritual, are considered to be both feminine (in their behaviour and in the ‘bottom’ (insertee) role they take during sexual intercourse) and female (where maleness is defined as the ability to act upon and transform another).
Bugchasers are said to be ‘impregnated’ by the masculine and male giftgivers when they are infected. HIV positive giftgivers, following receptive anal intercourse with another HIV positive giftgiver, are said to have been ‘repozzed’ or ‘recharged’. These dominant metaphors of pregnancy and electrical power reveal notions of HIV as a transforming and empowering substance. Research material and quotes used here are from my own research using a bugchasing and giftgiving website carried out as part of my undergraduate dissertation.
Previously, this behaviour has been seen to empower men on two levels; first, by giving them the (male) ability to act upon and transform others. In this case, the feminine, female HIV negative bugchaser seems to represent feminine, female HIV negative society (i.e. that which is outside the ‘bugbrotherhood’ of giftgivers) and the giftgiver is not only acting upon and transforming an individual but is appropriating the hegemonic masculine (heterosexual) ability to act upon and transform society (c.f. Ortner, 1974). Second, the HIV positive giftgiver who embraces the stereotype attached to him as polluted, evil, sinful and demonic (particularly in the American bible belt where the behaviours predominantly take place) inverts the power differential within the stereotype. So, instead of the stereotype being used to control gay men and their sexuality, the giftgiver becomes an object of fear as the nightmare becomes reality. This behaviour has been interpreted as an attempt to escape the feminised position of gay men in western society who are controlled and acted upon by religious fundamentalist groups, government policies and the media, to achieve masculine social agency and the embodiment of a terrifying stereotype.

Initially it was thought that this agency took place physically only at the individual level (transformation of the HIV negative bugchaser) whereas agency at the collective level (acting upon society) took place only symbolically (with the bugchaser representing ‘outside’ society). However, a revision of the materiality of the ‘toxic’ semen suggests that men see themselves as having agency in sexual networks across space and time. To explore this concept I want to return to the pregnancy metaphor which is used for several reasons. First, the giftgiver is seen to introduce something alien into the bugchaser’s body which then grows. Semen is referred to as ‘seed’, the newly inseminated bugchaser talks about his giftgivers ‘babies’ swimming around in him, and the HIV (in the giftgivers ‘seed’) grows inside the bugchaser and eventually takes over his body. Second, the giftgivers toxic semen is said to contain his DNA. When a man becomes infected with HIV it takes over all the cells in his body and becomes inextricably intertwined with his DNA. When he infects another man, his DNA is passed on with the virus, so when the HIV becomes established in the newly infected bugchasers body, the giftgivers DNA is present and will be present for as long as the second man (the bugchaser) remains alive. For this reason, the giftgiver is not only HIV positive, but he is HIV. The HIV virus, where it exists in every man he infects, and every man they subsequently infect, contains his DNA. Here we can begin to understand how being HIV positive gives a man indefinite agency. Even if he dies from AIDS very quickly, his DNA, and thus he himself, will live on indefinitely in the bodies of other men. Quotes from the website illustrate this:
Member R. T. ‘I’m mostly top and love to fuck and breed other pigs but I’m always looking for other poz/AIDS brothers who will recharge and strengthen my seed’
Member P. O. ‘The hot thing about toxic cock is every man who leaves his seed in you LIVES in you forever! I carry the ‘ghosts’ of so MANY hot men in me!’
Member P.F. ‘He [Alex] said he had full blown AIDS, and he was looking for pigs who would continue to carry and spread his strain after he croaked. I assured him I’d spread his strain to hundreds of other raw pigs at home and anywhere I travel. After being poz for more than twenty years, I believe the virus only makes me stronger and enables me to continue my twisted mission. I heard from another pig bud that Alex died two weeks later. Fortunately he still lives deep in my sick brain and in the toxic DNA that I continue to spread to other brothers, who share my dark, twisted passion.’
There is a political aspect to this which is present in the connotations of HIV. HIV is still, undeniably, associated with gay men and the gay community. For the men in the bugchasing/giftgiving group HIV is a metaphor for homosexuality. Conversely, condoms and antiretroviral drugs (which control HIV replication) have become metaphors for those groups in society (the religious right and public health) which are seen to feminise gay men and attempt to control their sexuality. Condoms have become ‘something designed by the Religious Right to stop us touching each other again’ (O’Hara, 1997 in Yep, Lovaas & Pagonis, 2002). This is clear from the increase of barebacking (unprotected anal intercourse) in the gay community and the refusal of some HIV positive giftgivers to conform to doctor’s instructions regarding health, sexual behaviour and the use of antiretrovirals, despite increasing the risk of dying from AIDS.
The body, since the time of antiquity, has been used as a metaphor for the socio-political unit and the socio-political unit as a metaphor for the body. This materialises in various forms, from the description of stigmatised groups (such as the gay community) as ‘bacteria’ or ‘tumours’ (Napier, 2003), to the modern correspondence of a physically fit, tough body to a physically fit, tough nation (Scheper-Hughes and Lock, 1987). In biomedical and popular discourse, disease (such as HIV or cancer) is seen as invasion of the body, an attack on the self (body) by the non-self (disease). The body becomes a battleground and this idea is extrapolated to society as metaphor. The idea that HIV/AIDS originated in either Africa or the gay community giving the sense that mainstream (American) society had been invaded and polluted by an outside agent both politically (in the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’) and physically (‘self’ and ‘non-self’) is an example of this (Gilman, 1988).
The idea of the body as a political or religious battleground is present in the bugchasing/giftgiving discourse where the agency/power present in an infected individual is considered to be ‘demonic’. The ‘father’ of the newly infected bugchasers ‘babies’ is the Devil, or some unspecified evil force. Many men wish to be blindfolded and raped during their ‘conversion’ ritual and fantasise that they are being raped by the Devil, HIV being the ‘Devil’s seed’.
Bugchasers and giftgivers essentially play on the language of immunology, now part of popular discourse, which represents the cancer cell or HIV virus as a volitional agent (Napier, 2003). Sontag (1990) presents a description of the ‘agency’ of the HIV virus in immunology;
‘Single-mindedly, the AIDS virus ignores many of the blood cells in its path, evades the rapidly advancing defenders and homes in on the master coordinator of the immune system, a helper T cell’ (Sontag, 1990:105). The immunologist could easily be describing the invasion of a society at war.
So, to return to the materiality of HIV positive semen in bugchasing and giftgiving, giftgivers achieve agency on several levels. First, by viewing the individual body as a metaphor for society, giftgivers, who are considered and consider themselves marginal and peripheral to mainstream society, can act upon it (society) symbolically by infecting an HIV negative bugchaser. In this sense the use of the pregnancy and power metaphors to describe and physically experience (Johnson, 1987) infection doesn’t repudiate the military metaphor used in immunological and popular narratives of infection but inverts it so giftgivers (as HIV) become the invaders. On another level, giftgiving is not just a metaphor for acting upon society but giftgivers actually physically penetrate social matter (other’s bodies) as volitional agents (the HIV/DNA hybrid). Giftgivers exist at the level of the cell as HIV/DNA and penetrate and destroy society as disease. This agency, however, requires a sacrifice; a sacrifice of the individual for the collective. In a sense, the giftgiver is displacing his agency and there is a location of the self in his HIV positive semen (the HIV/DNA hybrid) rather than in his body or mind. His body becomes a tool to disperse his self/agency and he becomes immortal.
This can be understood using a materialist approach, particularly focussing on the agency of the nonhuman subject as in Latour (1999). A theory of materiality suggests that ‘we cannot know who we are, or what we are, except by looking in a material mirror, which is the historical world created by those who lived before us. This world confronts us as material culture and continues to evolve through us’ (Miller, 2005:8). This concept has been developed particularly by Latour (1999) who focuses on agency. Latour’s approach is nondialectical in that he doesn’t recognise a distinction between the agency of subjects (humans) and objects (nonhumans) but rather considers it impossible to separate the two spheres. According to Latour, the human agent (the person) and the nonhuman agent (a gun, for example) combine to form a third agent (a gunman), a hybrid of the two. The third agent has an agency that neither of the first two agents possesses independently of one another, that is, each agent is transformed by the other. This third agent is the collective of the human and nonhuman agents. An equality of competences between the first two agents suggests a symmetrical association.
So, to return again to the materiality of the giftgivers HIV positive semen: through the creation of a hybrid between human (HIV negative gay man) and nonhuman (HIV), a third agent is created, the giftgiver. However, this formulation only explains the giftgivers agency on the individual level (transformation of the bugchaser) and not the collective (transformation of society). By reassessing Latour’s notion of symmetry, this could maybe be rectified. I would suggest that giftgivers see their relationship with HIV as asymmetrical but with the nonhuman agent (HIV) having greater agency in the sense that the human is transformed and enabled to a greater extent than the virus through their association. So, by association with a nonhuman agent with a greater degree of agency, the giftgiver, through a sacrifice of the individual, achieves the agency of the collective. The object gives the subject a degree of agency he would never have achieved as an HIV negative, feminised gay man. This is achieved through a dislocation of the self. The giftgiver locates the self, and the agency of the self, in the HIV/DNA hybrid. HIV is characterised as the Devil’s presence on earth so by attaching himself to the Devil, and sacrificing his body/soul, the feminised man achieves the Devil’s power through association. HIV is not part of the giftgiver; the giftgiver is part of HIV.
These behaviours, and the narratives surrounding them, give fascinating insight into one contemporary American formulation of sexuality, gender, disease and personhood. The idea of a disease like HIV as an enabling material which gives men agency across space and time and immortality is an interesting one and one that deserves analysis using a conception such as the theory of materiality. From a material culture point of view, two aspects of this it would be interesting to explore further are other examples of a material form giving an individual a sense of immortality, and the possibility that a nonhuman subject can have greater agency than a human subject.
Gilman, S. L. (1988) Disease and Representation: Images of Illness from Madness to AIDS. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Johnson, M (1987) The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Latour, B. (1999) Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Miller, D. (2005) ‘Materiality: An Introduction’ pp. 1-49 in D. Miller (ed.) Materiality . Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Napier, A. D. (2003) The Age of Immunology: Conceiving a Future in an Alienating World. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press.
Ortner, S. B. (1974) ‘Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?’ pp. 67-88 in M. Z. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere (eds.) Women, Culture and Society . Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Scheper-Hughes, N. & M. Lock (1987) ‘The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology’ Medical Anthropology Quarterly . 1: 6-41.
Sontag, S. (1990) Illness as Metaphor: and AIDS and its Metaphors (2nd ed.) New York: Double Day.
Yep, G., K. Lovaas & A. Pagonis (2002) ‘The Case of Riding Bareback: Sexual Practices and Paradoxes of Identity in the Era of AIDS’ Journal of Homosexuality . 42 (4):1-14.

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3 Responses to Becoming HIV: disease as agency

  1. Patrick Laviolette (UCL / SVMC, Massey Univ.) February 27, 2007 at 5:29 pm #

    Hi Ellie,
    It might perhaps be an interesting issue, especially in terms of disciplinary reflexivity, for you to chase up the life of the famous anthropologist Colin Turnbull who died twice as it were. Once in 1988 when he ceased to go by the name Turnbull after the death of his partner Joe Towles who died of AIDS (Turnbull requested a ‘burial’ of some of his possessions with Towles and the memorial stone that he had made writes that they died simultaneously). And again in 1994 when he then himself died of AIDS. Turnbull’s biographer R Grinker writes that after having been despondent about an initial test in ‘88 that showed that he was not HIV positive, Turnbull was pleased when he found the test was wrong, although it does not seem that he deliberately sought to be infected. Anyway, it’s far from a great intellectual biography but you still might find the last 2 chapters which cover these events of some value.
    Grinker R.R. 2000. In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull. Chicago: Univ. Press.

  2. Daniel Miller March 8, 2007 at 6:32 am #

    For an analogous study of material culture within this idiom of who can penetrate and who can be penetrated, I would remind readers of the wonderful ethnography of transsexual Filipino males by Mark Johnson called Beauty and Power (Berg 1997 ). This gives another reflection on issues (pun not intended) of agency in that these transsexual men wish to create relationships but being only penetrated are unable to do so. But the wider implications which relates to the more general study of modern consumption, is that gay men are critical to the notion of style and fashion in the Philippines, and especially the influence of US and other foreign styles. They tend to be the hairdressers and stylists. Their place in this sexual idiom as being only able to be penetrated and not to penetrate then becomes part of the means by which Filipino society is able to control and limit the larger cultural penetration by US and foreign styles of consumption.

  3. mikey July 3, 2007 at 10:18 am #

    Intersting piece but I think that you have misunderstood stealthpozzing or stealthconversion. This is distinctly not rape of straight males – stealthing (general term) is to insert pozcum without the recipient being aware of it for example during consensual intercourse the stealther will remove the condom he is wearing, or if having UAI will tell his partner that he has not/cannot ejaculate while having done so.

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